What will the world look like under tightened internet censorship and increased government regulation of "fake news"? Developments in France—where a regime that loudly calls for controls on online communications was recently caught manipulating news for its own ends—suggest that it will look a lot like every other society in history that suffered under self-serving authorities. That is, censorship continues to be about empowering those in charge.
Since taking office, French President Emmanuel Macron has made quite the name for himself as a scold and a censor. Complaining that Russian news outlets smeared him during his presidential campaign with false stories about offshore bank accounts and extramarital gay affairs, Macron vigorously called for new laws and government powers. He proposed requiring websites and social media accounts to disclose their sponsors and give regulators the power to shutter disapproved sources of information.
Policy-wise, this wasn't exactly out of the blue, given that Macron had already pushed for censorship of video games—and even criminal penalties for whistling at women. Macron is a big believer in letting people say exactly what he wants them to say, nothing more and nothing less.
In November of last year, French lawmakers gave the president what he wanted. "Candidates and political parties will now be able to appeal to a judge to help stop 'false information' during the three months before an election," euronews reported. "The law also allows the CSA, the French national broadcasting agency, to render the authority to suspend television channels 'controlled by a foreign state or under the influence' of that state if they 'deliberately disseminate false information likely to affect the sincerity of the ballot.'"
The French government also partnered with Facebook in an effort "aimed at figuring out how the European country should police hate speech on the social network," noted Politico. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a big proponent of Internet regulation, compliance with which will be relatively simple for his giant company, and which will serve as an enormous hurdle to upstart competitors.
So, problem solved, right? France has abolished fake news, whatever that is!
Sure—unless you're talking about fake news that originates with and is spread by agents of the regime itself.
To back up a bit, let's introduce Alexandre Benalla, a former high-ranking aide and security officer who served Macron both during the campaign and during the presidency. Last year, Benalla was caught on camera beating up protesters in Paris. He was fired from his job, but it later emerged that he had retained his diplomatic passport and seemed to remain tight with Macron's administration.
Then, just weeks ago, the newspaper Le Monde discovered that, before officially distancing itself from the wayward security aide, the president's office had been very creative in attempting to defend Benalla. Specifically, presidential aides illegally obtained a police video of Benalla's abusive protest shenanigans, spliced in unrelated violence, and disseminated the altered images through anonymous Twitter accounts in an effort to make the aide appear justified in his attack.
It's as if the Macron administration deliberately set out to commit every online act that the president claimed that he opposed, and that he was pushing (ultimately successfully) to outlaw. It was the ultimate source-free distribution of fake news, performed by the powers-that-be who pretended to despise what they were doing. And maybe they do despise it—when it's a tool used against them by somebody else.
But that's the way it always is. Censorship is forever justified as a means of protecting the public from harmful influences and bad information by government officials who inevitably see themselves as immune to such risks. They must see themselves as above such dangers, since they inevitably assign themselves the power to determine what is fit and unfit for public consumption.
The arbitrariness of such designations is amply demonstrated by New Zealand's censorship regime, which banned the "manifesto" of the Christchurch killer while leaving it available to allegedly enlightened types such as academics, journalists, and the censors themselves.
"It is a document with a specific purpose – to radicalise those who may be persuaded by it, to carry out further attacks," the censors sniffed. "Most people won't be influenced by its ideology and calls to attack identified groups and targets. Some may be."
That's condescension toward the unwise, unwashed masses on display. It's a fitting companion to the overt, self-serving cynicism of politicians who would ban the spreading of "fake news" by others while spreading it themselves.
Also cynical are French government claims that social media accounts operated by agents of the Kremlin are behind the Yellow Vest movement that has plagued Macron and the establishment with (sometimes violent) street protests for months. A finding that Russians are behind the administration's troubles would dovetail nicely with earlier claims that they spread fraudulent criticism of Macron's campaign. It could then empower officials to muzzle social media accounts and communications channels fueling the protests—which would be convenient for the powers-that-be.
France isn't alone in its efforts. New Zealand was mentioned above, Germany already has a censorship law in place that has resulted in the blocking of satirical publications, Australia is now threatening online publishers with prison time if they fail to remove forbidden content, the U.K. is considering a comprehensive regime for controlling online content, the European Union is muzzling speech in the name of copyright protection, and governments elsewhere are racing to follow. You can be certain that all these laws will be enforced with an unhealthy dose of contempt for the common people and self-serving exceptions for the powerful.
Last week, Twitter blocked a French government voter registration campaign on the grounds that the country's new Internet regulations are too difficult to obey, so the platform will just stay entirely clear of French political content. The platform has formally written that ban on French political campaign and issue ads into its rules. With predictable screams of outrage, officials objected that they didn't mean for the rules to apply to their efforts.
Give it time. Government officials will undoubtedly write a new law on the subject. It will benefit them and attempt to muzzle the rest of us.